US condemns Russian Defense Minister for awarding pilots who intercepted US drone
Friday, March 24, 2023
In a press briefing on Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby condemned Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu for awarding two Russian pilots the Order of Courage for intercepting a US MQ-9 Reaper drone over the Black Sea.
Kirby said: "I don't know of another military in the world — another air force in the world — that would award a pilot for smashing into a drone. If that's bravery, then I guess they've got a different definition of it. It's ludicrous, it's insulting.
"Now, we don’t know whether that pilot was trying to intentionally ram that drone or not, but he did — video evidence was pretty conclusive."
On March 14, United States Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA) reported the incident, which it said occurred at 07:03 CET (06:03 UTC) the same day over international waters, identifying the Russian fighter jets as Sukhoi Su-27s.
United States Air Force General James B. Hecker, commander of USAFE-AFAFRICA, said: "Several times before the collision, the Su-27s dumped fuel on, and flew in front of the MQ-9 in a reckless, environmentally unsound and unprofessional manner."
US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, speaking to MSNBC on March 15, said: "I think the best assessment right now is that it probably was unintentional. It probably was the result of profound incompetence on the part of one of these Russian pilots."
The next day, the United States European Command (EUCOM) declassified a 42-second video clip "edited for length" from the incident. The clip purportedly depicts two passes over the drone. After the second pass, which EUCOM alleges ended in a collision, the video cuts out for about 9 seconds, displaying color bars, then returns to show the drone's propeller has been physically damaged.
The MQ-9's pilots intentionally crashed the drone into the sea; EUCOM cited the damaged propeller as the reason.
Russia has denied it deliberately brought down the drone or that a Russian jet made contact with it, claiming the MQ-9's "sharp maneuvering" was responsible for its crash.
Samir Puri, a visiting lecturer in war studies at King's College London, told Al Jazeera the video does not prove intention, but he thought the Russians would fly aggressively to demonstrate "mastery over these skies and that the Americans, they can't fly these intelligence flights undisturbed."
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia, said: "The Americans keep saying they're not taking part in military operations. This is the latest confirmation that they are directly participating in these activities – in the war."
The Guardian speculated the incident could escalate Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Media reports disagreed on whether Shoigu presented the award to the pilots on March 17 or on Wednesday, with CNN and Insider stating the former and Sputnik and The Hill writing the date was Wednesday.
Shoigu's Ministry of Defense said the pilots "prevented the violation by the American MQ-9 unmanned aerial vehicle of the borders of the area of the temporary regime for the use of airspace, established for the purpose of conducting a special military operation."
- Alex Gangitano. "Kirby on Russia giving award for hitting US drone: pilot was 'at best, just an idiot'" — The Hill (newspaper), March 22, 2023
- Jake Epstein, John Haltiwanger. "White House says Russian pilot who ran into a US drone and broke it was, at best, 'an idiot'" — Insider, March 22, 2023
- "Shoigu Awards Order of Courage to Su-27 Pilots Who Prevented Border Violation by US UAV - Video" — Sputnik (news agency), March 22, 2023
- Tim Lister, Anna Chernova. "Russian defense minister presents awards to pilots involved in drone incident" — CNN, March 17, 2023
- Explained Desk (with input from Reuters). "US claims Russian jet downed its MQ-9 Reaper drone: What we know so far" — The Indian Express, March 17, 2023
- "US releases video of Black Sea drone incident with Russian jet" — Al Jazeera, March 16, 2023
- United States European Command Public Affairs. "MEDIA ADVISORY: Camera footage release from U.S. Air Force MQ-9 interaction with Russian SU-27 in Black Sea" — United States European Command, March 16, 2023
- Kanishka Singh. "US State Dept says Black Sea drone incident likely unintentional from Russia" — Reuters, March 15, 2023
- Jonathan Yerushalmy. "MQ-9 Reaper: what is the US drone that collided with a Russian jet and how is it used?" — The Guardian, March 15, 2023
- David Vergun. "Russian Fighter Strikes U.S. Unmanned Aircraft" — United States Department of Defense, March 14, 2023
- Press Release: "Russian aircraft collides into US unmanned system in international waters" — United States European Command, March 14, 2023